An artist with one great work likely doesn’t know what makes it good. If they did, they'd have more great works. So, in their case, I just appreciate the work itself.
But an artist with a streak of masterpieces, such as Christopher Nolan, is indeed a master. In that case, I try to reverse engineer their process. They clearly have one.
I believe I've engineered a reliable writing process.
The goal of your first draft is not to say things well. Save that for rewriting. Your first draft is simply for generating and connecting ideas:
This works best when you’re exploring ideas that most interest you. The more self-indulgent you are, the better your article. More on this shortly.
When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, you write it for everyone else.
Supporting points typically come first and resulting points typically come last. But, there is no correct outline. Hundreds of paths lead to your objective. Say as little or as much as you want.
The only requirement is that you focus on points that are novel. Content is driven by novelty.
Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:
Take a moment to examine your outline. What’s still needed to convincingly and logically tie your points together?
In the outline above, I found two gaps worth plugging:
Under each talking point in your outline, start by writing half-formed thoughts.
It’s more efficient to breeze through a bad first draft and improve it later than to try starting from perfection.
Your ideas will come from a few places:
It’s normal if not many ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll discover that the majority of your ideas arrive while writing—not before. You write in order to think.
You'll discover the rest of your ideas by resting and reflecting on what you’ve written. The act of writing compels your brain to draw connections between ideas.
It can’t help itself.
People think you need to be inspired to write. No, you write in order to get inspired.
How do you know which thoughts are most valuable? What separates good from bad ideas?
The solution is to focus on ideas that are interesting or surprising. These are the ingredients of novelty. Novelty is what keeps readers reading. They tend to be:
To uncover interesting ideas, continuously make your next point whatever interests you most. Skip everything that bores you.
When something bores you, it probably bores your readers too. And if something entertains you, it probably entertains them too. You are your reader's proxy. Especially if you're writing for people like yourself.
That’s the irony of self-indulgent writing: writing for yourself is the quickest path to writing something others love.
The mistake writers make is believing expertise is required to write nonfiction. Nope, it's the rabid desire to indulge your curiosity.
Something wonderful happens when you focus on what interests and surprises you: your voice emerges.
Readers begin to notice:
Readers love this. It makes your writing feel personal.
I just write what I want. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
In addition to interesting talking points, you're also looking for surprising ideas.
Surprise is anything that contradicts what readers know or expect you to say. It makes them think, “Wow. That’s unexpected.”
You generate surprising talking points using Paul Graham’s Method: First, learn the basic knowledge of a topic. Then, if you can find new information that surprises your knowledgeable self, it’ll surprise laypeople too. You can also play detective: when you know enough about a topic to know what's not known about it, you can selectively resolve those gaps and share the discoveries.
Again, you are your audience's proxy. There's no need to guess what will surprise them. Hunt for something that surprises you, and others will be along for the ride.
When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:
Repeatedly ask these two questions and keep moving in whichever direction interests you most.
Your outline should be specific enough to provide structure, but loose enough to not confine expansive thinking. Whenever you feel a tug pulling you away from your outline, indulge that curiosity. Pursue that adventure.
You can prune the bad stuff later.
I hated English in high school. But if they called it Thinking, then I wouldn't be as terrible of a writer as I am today.